Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Rite of Passage

My son graduated from kindergarten yesterday. I used to be mildly contemptuous of calling anything below getting your diploma a "graduation" -- it smacked of an overweening praise-everything-and-everyone parenting culture that watered down real standards and discredited real achievement. Surely we don't need pomp and circumstance for someone learning to tie their shoes and sit quietly in circle.

But that's why I send my kids to a Waldorf school. They are much wiser about these things than I am. The teachers understand that the work the kindergartners are doing is real work. The capacities they are developing for cooperation, self-control, consistent application of energy, and respect for others are the bedrock of a successful life. It is an accomplishment to learn those things.

The ceremony was simple. Miss Patricia told a story about a young princess who played in a garden every day, until one day she strayed through garden walls and explored the outside world, worrying the king at first but prompting him to let her explore the world some more. Miss Patricia handed each child an orange ("to sustain you in the work you have to do"), a stone ("for wisdom to always choose to do the right thing") and a flower ("to remind you of the beauty of the garden, and find beauty in the outside world.") And when the children went outside to join the other classes, the rising first-graders walked through a flowered trellis, to symbolism their transition out of the garden.

None of this would have impressed me particularly, except for the effect that I saw it had on Aidan. There was no visible effect at the time, other than him just enjoying himself. But at home, he asked if he could use a tool that were previously off-limits: a swing-blade for whacking down large weeds. And I let him. He accepted my instruction seriously and without argument. He was extremely careful in using it, and worked hard to make sure his little brother was never threatened by the blade. Later that evening he picked up all the toys, telling his little brother that, "You don't have to worry about it, I'll do it." He fed the dogs without the usual arguments and tantrums. He asked if he could make it his regular job: "I know I could remember to do it . . . I would just need help telling the time."

I never had to tell him, "Now that you're a big boy, you should be accepting new responsibilities." (I remember in my grade school, the teachers always bellowing, "Now, children, you're no longer (x) graders, you're (x+1) graders, so you should behave better." I always despised that for some reason, and it never worked, anyway.) I didn't have to have that conversation, because the ritual had already told him.

The logical, rational mind will always chafe at ceremony and ritual. There is nothing rational about ceremony. It smacks of superstitious magic -- the vain belief that saying the right words and doing the right symbolic actions will mysteriously make the world obey your desires. But the human psyche is not rational, and the will and imagination do obey the laws of magic. You will hear people say that something is "merely symbolic" or "only metaphorical" when they discuss religious practices, as well. The mistake is not to call them symbolic or metaphorical; the mistake is to say, "merely symbolic." In the context of the human mind, nothing is merely symbolic. The mind is just one huge cavalcade of symbols, "a mobile army of metaphors" as Nietzsche put it. Symbols have real power.


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